… And a Dance

Two dragons,
Each composed of two grown men;
Another man dressed as
A large, golden Buddha.
They progress around the room, pausing
At each table
To spread smiles
And bring cheer
To their audience.

On the stage, they dance
And twist, flashing colours
Before our eyes,
Filling our vision with rainbows
Of red and gold.
However long they spark amusement,
Time flies by at double speed.

We see ourselves as strangers in our homes,
Outsiders looking upon
Our own cultures, wondering
Just as we are marvelling,
Viewing Christmas lights
And Easter eggs
And media obsession with royals
With alien meaning and intention,
All understanding lost. For this
Is who we are,
Watching the dragons dance,
Observing without knowing
Blind although we see.

It makes the moment
No less beautiful,
The evening no less enthralling;
We have no bias, existing
Purely to enjoy
And nothing more.


© Laura Marie Clark

Excerpt from the book “City Of The World”

Please visit my author page and share my adventure:
http://www.ctupublishinggroup.com/laura-marie-clark.html

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Tet: A Meal …

Lunar New Year is a time
For relaxation, celebration, salutation
And great joy for all. Flags unfurl,
Hanging from every building,
Swaying with the same energy that infects
Everyone below.

We take a break
From all our efforts, joining
Together to observe the celebrations.

There’s a large meal put on
For all the teachers, organized
By our boss, enough
To impress
The stockholders. We inhale
The scent of good food
And our stomachs answer in earnest,
Begging to try everything.

Tables laid out in perfect design,
Each a splendid replica of the last;
Vivid pictures in our minds
For years to come.
Melting on the tongue,
The food takes centre stage,
Lighting up our mouths with
Unique and wonderful flavours.

Then the drums begin
From somewhere behind us,
Confusing our ears
As we search for the source
Of the sound.

Thud, thud, thud
And thump, thump, thump
And rat-a-tat-a-tat;
They make our fingers tap.
The sounds infect our bodies
Until they feel as though
They come from inside of us.

Where is that noise coming from?
It grows in volume, intensifies
Until we could explode
From the vibrations coursing through us.
Then through a door
That bursts wide open
Comes the evening’s entertainment.


© Laura Marie Clark

Excerpt from the book “City Of The World”

Please visit my author page and share my adventure:
http://www.ctupublishinggroup.com/laura-marie-clark.html

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

The sleeping city lay under a thick fog that granted occasional glimpses of the moon. It kept the prying eyes of heaven off what was happening below, where a young woman’s life hung in the balance.

She had been running down the dark streets for what seemed like forever. Her gown flapped around behind her loosely, rustling with her every step. Heavy make-up, revealing clothing, and a stench of sex gave away her profession, her filth lingering behind her in the darkness.

If there had ever been a time when she would live to see the dawn, it had long since passed. The only course of action that remained to her was to delay the inevitable.

It was becoming harder with every step: she was exhausted.

She had been chased through the streets at night before, by angry men who had taken advantage of her and then returned at a later hour to take back the money they had paid her. But this time, her pursuer was no man – it was something far more sinister, more monstrous than anyone who threatened her with cruel words or solid fists could ever have been. Fear was something she knew well, but tonight … this was a new kind of terror.

The narrow, cobbled streets she ran through were devoid of human life, but then no passer-by would have stopped to help her once they spotted the monster at her heels. Not to save a woman of the night.

The ragged breath that struck the back of her legs sent shivers up her spine; the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end at the feeling. She screamed as her chest began to tighten, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes.

She turned sharply to the right, down a hidden passageway that led onto the next street. Not fooled, her pursuer flew around the corner after her, spitting and snarling. It wanted her to remember it was there; she was hardly likely to forget. In fact, the part of her mind that could still concentrate on something other than panic and faster and death was convinced that it was toying with her. Twice she had thought she had escaped, and twice it had jumped at her out of nowhere, continuing their pursuit.

It was a swift and powerful beast, bouncing off the ground on four lean legs, the occasional sharp claw scraping across a stone. The whore ran barefoot ahead, leaving a trail of blood in her wake and trying her best to ignore the pain.

Barks, growls, and crueller sounds filled her ears. They were the sorts of noises she had only heard before in her nightmares. The beast grunted and snarled like a creature of no natural origin.

She knew what it was. There was only one thing it could possibly be. She was being chased through the streets by a demon. It was proof that her sins had condemned her to hell, proof that there was nothing but torture awaiting her in the next life.

The woman tried to turn left, but the creature snapped at her and forced her to go right instead. She realised her mistake immediately when she came to the bottom of a steep, cobbled hill, too fatigued to climb. Stumbling onwards regardless, she tripped and caught herself, then picked her feet up and focused herself on the ascent. That small portion of her mind again told her that the beast was waiting for her to collapse, waiting for her most vulnerable moment.

When that moment came, she would feel the true power of the monster. She had seen it only for a moment, right before the chase had begun, but the image had seared itself onto her irises. It had wide, staring eyes and enormous teeth. It was covered in black and grey fur, water droplets clinging onto the longer hairs from the heavy downfall that had engulfed the city earlier that night. The largest of its teeth, a pair of yellow fangs, had promised to tear through her clothes and skin with ease.

It was the pitch-black eyes that had scared her the most about the creature, their soulless glare deeply unnerving. The beast had stared at her intimately, eagerly, as though it had been assessing her, before she had overcome her initial feeling of shock and started to run.

Close to the top of the hill, she turned and tripped around a sharp corner, then flew straight into the wall of a house and landed on the ground with a huff. If anyone from the nearby houses was woken by the sound of her fall, none of them came outside to see what was going on.

She realised in that moment that it was over.

The creature was on her in an instant. A pair of huge, sabre-like teeth sunk into one of her shoulders; she screamed out into the night, but still nobody came outside. With teeth and claws it dug through flesh and bone, scattering what little she had been wearing and creating a bloody mess as the beast devoured her with haste. For all of the patience it had shown during the chase, it was evidently desperate to feed. She was not left to scream for long; an assault on her neck left her vocal chords scattered down the alley.

A barely audible gurgle signalled the final moment of the whore’s physical life, and then her suffering ended.

*

Blood and small pieces of skin dangled sloppily from the hairs around the beast’s mouth. It took a final bite before leaving the carcass of the whore in the alley, to be found by some unsuspecting person the following morning. She had been a hasty feast that it had eaten its way through in under a minute.

The animal sped off, far from satisfied. Keen eyes adapted to the night sought out a second victim. Real food came once a month, and only human flesh could truly please it.

And the chase – the game it played – was a celebration of its freedom. Like real food, freedom only came once a month. For the rest of the time, the creature was a prisoner, trapped inside the body of a human who had no idea that it was there and knew nothing of what happened when the monster took over.

It was incredibly smart and had great mental strength. The more people it tore apart and devoured, the stronger it seemed to become. It was sly enough to allow its human host to live their normal life, oblivious to the beast within, and ready to take over should it become threatened.

There, within that human, it had grown. A prisoner trapped inside a human-cell. The longer it had been in there, the more it had yearned for release, until it had been willing to do anything to escape. One day, it would take complete control of the body they shared, and then it would be the human trapped within the body of the beast.

There was nothing it thought about more than destroying the human: it was obsessed. Yet it was also patient, incredibly so. Patience was something it had always known.

Not much longer. Not much longer. Soon, it would be able to take control more frequently, and feed increasingly often. That was when it would be able to strike. The human would know the unnatural, unstoppable pain of being trapped inside a body that was not their own.

It was hardly the first to kill for freedom.

*

The second feed was easy for the beast to find. The only people who were out in the city at that hour were slow, easy targets, with no idea of what was lurking in the shadows.

He was a scruffy-looking man sneaking about at the back of a gambling den, probably looking for coins that had been dropped on the ground. The downward spiral of addiction encouraged by the city was evident on him. In a way, the monster would be doing him a favour.

After a while, the man gave up searching for coins and set off down the street, the beast following him. His life and death were under its command.

They walked for some time, the human staggering from side-to-side and muttering to himself, clearly intoxicated; the beast following without a sound. This was going to be a poor hunt, but chasing the screaming prostitute had been extremely satisfying and the animal knew it would be best to lay low after her deafening shrieks. The game was not an essential part of the hunt.

The gambler paused at the corner of a house, leaning against the wall to catch his breath. He did not seem to have the ability to run in him. Having no desire to continue the crawl, the beast took its chance and struck.

It leapt at the man and sunk its teeth into his neck, digging its fangs deep into the skin and slicing across his neck, leaving a trail of blood. The gambler did not even have a chance to see who his attacker was, dead before he hit the ground; the creature devoured his limp body just as it had done the harlot’s. Like her, the taste of his sins mingled with his flesh. A stink of impiety and negativity came off the meat, foul even to the beast’s nose. It could taste and smell every crime, every wrong, every immoral action the man had ever committed, from the first lie to the drinking and the gambling of that night.

The feast finished, the beast skulked away. One more meal to finish off the night, and then the creature would spend its remaining few hours wandering around the countryside, where it could chase wild animals and quietly observe the pack of wild dogs that lived in the nearby forest. They were instinctive animals without the same intelligent level conscious thought that the beast possessed, but it yearned to live as they did nonetheless. A simple life. An animalistic life.

Perhaps it could persuade them to allow it to join their pack. It would take some time. The beast was more powerful than any of them, strong enough to tear a man in two. It would continue to hunger for the taste of human flesh, like none of the others did, because it knew the power of that precious meat, but life with the wild dogs would be easy. It could live as nature had intended, no matter how unique it was.

The first few times that it had taken control from the human, it had not killed. It had done nothing more than enjoy its newfound freedom. Back then, the creature had believed it could have done anything; it had come to understand that it would have to suffer before it could do the things that others took for granted.

It tried to behave as the wild dogs behaved, to follow its instincts and do what felt natural. As the clouds drifted across the sky slowly, the full moon came into view, and instinct kicked in: the creature stood on its two back legs and reared up, howling at the moon, the only god it would ever answer to. The full moon was a blessing, the sign of its monthly night of freedom.

It would grow hungry in the last few days before the full moon. By the time it took control, it was usually ravenous. The beast would be desperate for the taste of skin and blood; sometimes it became so needy that its human host would crave large amounts of meat too. Two minds did not fit well in one body and one could have an impact upon the other without either of them noticing.

A third victim was close – the beast could sense it. They came out at night, the sinners. A part of the creature wanted to punish them for what they had done, perhaps a way that it could justify what it did, to carry out the work of the being that humans called God and purge society of their filth. It was a message to those who remained alive that they should live better lives and avoid immorality.

The last meal was not difficult for the monster to find, but he was accompanied by another person: a young girl, who he had been having an adulterous relationship with. She could live for another day, young enough to learn to change; if the beast caught her next month, that would be too bad. She would have to learn to run, and fast.

The beast’s quarrel was with the man, the one with the large stomach who reeked of sex. He should have been at home in bed, asleep with his wife and under the same roof as his children, but instead an excuse had allowed him to meet up with his younger lover. Whatever he had done to encourage the girl to believe his lies, it had been successful.

Wary of approaching more than one person at a time, the beast held back. It had learned previously that it was important for its prey to be alone and defenceless. If there were too many witnesses to its presence in the city, that would bring about its disaster.

After a short distance, the pair stopped, and the girl turned to face the man. She stood on the tips of her toes and kissed the man firmly on the lips before vanishing into her parent’s house and leaving her lover behind in the darkness. It would be the last time that she would ever see him. The beast was to save her from his manipulation.

The beast’s nose crinkled in disgust. There would be punishment for this man’s sin in this life, and in the next. He stood there, half shrouded in the shadow cast by that house, for a minute or so, seemingly lost in his thoughts. It was nothing for the beast to wait for him to turn and begin lumbering back down the street.

What a shame it was – he was too fat for a long chase. He would make a good meal, though.

The beast emerged from the darkness, gleefully watching the way that the man’s eyes went wide and his face fell as he spotted the great hulking monster in his path. It growled low and snapped at him; he tore off in the opposite direction, his footfalls heavy. There was no reason for the beast to toy with him: he offered it no fun. It sped after him, catching up with him before he was able to reach the corner at the far end of the street.

He was pulled to the ground as though he weighed nothing. The third frenzied feeding of the night followed, and then the beast, wary that it must have been heard and likely spotted, crept away on quiet paws. It retreated to the dull green countryside beyond the city walls, where it felt the forest call to it.

The beast made its way over and settled down in the undergrowth on the outskirts of the forest, where it could look out into the stillness of the night. It enjoyed the contrast between the atmospheres of the city and the countryside. The only sounds in the forest were quiet, sometimes so quiet that it had to strain its ears to hear them. That in itself was significant: the animal had highly acute hearing.

Nocturnal animals hooted and called out into the night, their sounds sinister and uncanny in the darkness. The beast let out a soft howl, joining their chorus. Soon, it would be able to call this place home. Before then, there would be several long months, when it was not in command. It could feel itself growing stronger, but it was not yet strong enough.

One day, it would have full control of the body that it was forced to share with a worthless, hypocritical being. One day, but not yet.

For the present, the only home it had was the one where the human decided to spend their days. For the present, the human was so strong that the beast was sometimes unable to understand where they ended and it began. Two minds, forced to live where there should only ever have been one. A body pushed and forced to twist and change, depending upon which one of them was in control, and the way the controller wanted to look. A painful combination of monster and human that should never have been brought together, in which one of them would always be the captive of the other.

Maybe the human would realise that there was something living inside of them soon, and find out what the creature did. Perhaps they would discover what they became on the full moon and try to fight back, but the beast doubted that they would have the strength. It was confident that it could dominate, should the human ever learn that it existed within them.

There was a more pressing worry than that human, in any case; the beast knew them inside out. Other humans, however, were not the same. If a large enough group of laypeople discovered it, then they would have no issue with killing human and best as one, taking them both out with a single blow to kill the nightmare that stalked the streets. Then there were other dangers, hunters and soldiers, which would be even more dangerous for the beast.

Humans spoke of monsters and demons that could transform into whatever shape they desired, their stories making little or no distinction between the human and the beast that occupied that body, imagining them to be indistinguishable in some instances. Was that what it was? A demon? The beast had no answers to life’s simplest – and hardest – question. Humans had concluded, with their limited knowledge, that monsters were instinctive creatures, wanting nothing more than destruction and death, but this beast wished for far more. It knew loneliness like no human could understand it – it wanted to belong, to be accepted.

If it was a demon, then humans knew nothing of demons.

The beast had learned these stories through the human, their memories and conversations. It had spent a lot of time learning how to delve into the human’s mind without arousing suspicion. They were a well-educated person, a matter which had served the creature well, with a wide knowledge of folklore, religion, and modern thought.

The human had been useful, in this respect. They had taught the animal much about the world around it, including their weaknesses and how it could use those to its advantage. It would almost be a shame when the beast took over and the human was no more – or, rather, it would have been, had the concept of taking over not been such a glorious one. Freedom was the one thing that the animal would give anything for.

Yes, it killed. It destroyed lives, from individuals to whole communities, but it did so in a righteous way. Those it took down and fed upon were sinners, and their punishments in the next life would be far worse than anything it could possibly do to them in this one. With each human it devoured, it could feel its autonomy getting closer. The need to be free was, after all, hardly alien to mankind: it was only natural. It killed so that it could life, no in self-defence, but in self-preservation. It had never considered that there might be another way.

From the stories that humans told, the animal knew that it was a monster. This was what monsters did.

New story upcoming: Where the Moon is God

Now that I have posted the final chapter of Valhalla Rising, and the whole story is available on this blog to read, I am going to begin posting another story. This one is a horror entitled Where the Moon is God, and I wrote it before I wrote Valhalla Rising.

The prologue will be up later today, and chapter 1 will appear in 3 weeks time, as I will be on holiday for the next 2 weeks.

I hope you enjoy!

Anh Part One: The Philosopher

One morning as I sat inside my classroom
Watching the students engage lazily with their task
With empty hearts (For none of us desired this,
But the school had insisted nonetheless;
To what end, I cannot say, perhaps merely
To bore the students), I thought to myself –
Like the dog thinks before it fetches the pheasant,
Or the cat before it ignores its owner and returns
To sleep, that there was nothing more than this.
Alas, time went no faster. So I pictured in my head
Some almighty teacher, somewhere, who with
A look of defeat in His eyes watches us solemnly,
Asking what possessed Him to give us this dreary task;
Wondering why we all make such a fuss.
Why, He questions, is there not a better choice?
All of His students begin to ask the same, until in turn
They begin to question the teacher’s judgement;
The lessons turn worse. The students become unruly,
Making a sport that they practice time and time again
In which they pretend the teacher is nowhere to be found
And that they cannot see Him in the classroom.
Once one student has begun, so the rest will follow
Their poor example, until the world is but destroyed;
There’s nothing but students with nothing to learn
Because they do not consider their lessons worth learning.
As I sat there watching one student scratch her head
In her confusion over a badly-worded question
Which even I had hoped not to attempt, I considered
Standing proud before them; ripping up their tests papers
As they cheered me on with glee. Yet that, I could not do.
The school was my Master and the wage my chain.
I owed allegiance to these two; no other did I serve.
So I knew then, in that moment of understanding
And shared pain, that this imprudent student was me:
I had ignored the presence of my teacher for too long;
There was nothing left for me but Master and chain.
The key to my desperation was held in the cold hands
Of the insistent preacher who had first felt the need
To present my students with such tedious tests.
If I had gone down a different path, and abandoned
My intellect, who knows! For I shall always question whether
That might have brought me closer to my teacher’s lessons;
In a life that could have been no less fulfilling
And perhaps more happy, I could have been sitting
In the marital home with my precious children,
Thinking that it was time for them to submit themselves
To their role as students in that soulless institution;
In a place to teach them how to read and write and think,
Though not to feel or understand their fellow man,
They could have been like every other student, discouraged
To grow as individuals, until some sorry morning when
Each child became a perfect replica of the last,
Though in their innocence they would never be trained to know.
Or I could have been working on a checkout somewhere,
Wondering why the customers were purchasing
Such strange items, such weird collections of goods,
Feeling desperate to shout that the designer brands they bought
Failed to make them any more important than me.
Alas, the more I dreamed the test away the more I saw
It mattered not what I might have done with my life,
For still in each outcome I could imagine I knew
I would have neglected my teacher, in times of
Bitter strife, for the ones I had avoided in my youth.
My devotion to that great teacher was no good.


© Laura Marie Clark

Excerpt from the book “City of the World”

I really hope you enjoyed this poem, it’s one of my personal favourites from City of the World. Part 2 will be up soon!

If you’d like to know more about this book and the others I have contributed to, please visit my author page and share my adventure:
http://www.ctupublishinggroup.com/laura-marie-clark.html

VALHALLA RISING – Part 9

This is the final part of Valhalla Rising.

If you need to catch up, you can find the rest of the story via the following links:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

VALHALLA RISING – Part 7

VALHALLA RISING – Part 8


The theme music could only be described as basic, at best. A few notes played in quick succession, repeated several times, and then the title appeared in the centre of the screen.

 

VALHALLA RISING

 

Zuwrath immediately decided that she did not like anything that associated the human camp with improvement. She placed one elbow on the edge of her desk and rested her head in her hand, her eyes concentrated on the screen on the opposite wall. Her tail smacked against the floor a couple of times as she waited for the words to fade away.

She should have been at home enjoying her evening, but there had been essential clarification on her new demands that Maureen Bradshaw had requested Zuwrath complete before the morning. The Controller had the sudden thought that she might not have been suspicious enough when she had received the Liaison’s unusual message.

The camera zoomed in on a virn male seated at a metal desk. Zuwrath did not recognise him, and from his appearance he was not full-blooded. His eyes were rounded in the middle, a pale blue colour, with circular pupils unlike slit-like virn eyes. Next to him was a human woman in full virn make-up, apparently made to look like a prosperous virn lady.

Zuwrath clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and huffed a long breath out of her nose. It was distasteful to see a lesser species dressed up in such a way.

For a second, a microphone dipped down from the top and was visible on the screen, but the mistake was quickly corrected. The part-virn cleared his throat, then began to speak.

Good evening and welcome to Valhalla Rising, a programme dedicated to breaking down the barriers between virn and humans, seeking to explore our cultures and shared values to bring us all closer together. I am Slick.’

And I am Lebonn,’ said the human woman, apparently abandoning her human name for one that sounded more virn.

Though from time-to-time we may refer to stories which have not been told in the more popular media, Valhalla Rising will largely be focused on allowing you to explore our lives, beliefs, and the benefits of improved virn-human relations.’

A Slick spoke, Zuwrath swiped her finger across her desk and opened a blank document.

I know what you are trying to do, she wrote. The language: calm, casual, more for virn than human viewing. The faces: virn, or at least some pathetic attempts to make them look virn. The costumes: extravagantly virn, so unlike human newscasters. The placement of words in sentences: virn comes before human, not the other way around. It is clever, I cannot deny that.

She allowed her hand to dangle over the keyboard as she retuned her attention to the unannounced programme. And be sure to tune into Pika channel 22 tonight, Maureen had ended her request, I think you’ll like what you see. Zuwrath ground her teeth together as the words floated through her mind. The woman, Lebonn, was talking.

‘… like virn society and culture, human society and culture is very complex and multi-layered,’ she said. Zuwrath’s fingers twitched. The keyboard noticed the movement and she had to go back to delete the jumble of letters that had sprawled across the document from the motion. ‘Today, as this is our first episode, we have decided to bring you something very basic from various human cultures for you to explore and enjoy at your leisure: recipes from Sol 3, or Earth as humans call our planet of origin.’

Zuwrath saved the document, closed it, and leaned over her desk to get a little closer to the screen. She frowned, and smacked her tail against the floor a couple more times. This was not the direction she had been expecting the broadcast to go in. Those behind it were certainly a cunning lot.

The broadcast featured nothing that was of great substance in and of itself. As well as a couple of recipes, there were readings of poetry, book recommendations, a short recreation of a funny sketch from a television show that had been salvaged from Sol 3, and descriptions of games played by both human children and adults.

And that was it.

Human cultures sneaking its way into everyday virn life like a pest burrowing its way into virn homes. Simple things, harmless things, the sorts of things that virn children or teens or laidback adults would be willing to try and (should they discover that they enjoyed them) perhaps even share with their friends and families. Things that they could discuss in polite conversations without the need for anything to become heated. Essentially, things that could be associated with humans without being a part of the “human problem”.

Things that Zuwrath could not possibly stop the average virn from doing in their private lives, behind closed doors where she could not pry. Things that they could not be held accountable for trying, because they would be doing nothing wrong.

There was no mention of the attack on the human child that Zuwrath had rejected for broadcast – but this, she found as she thought about it after the broadcast, was a hundred times worse than that. With Valhalla Rising, the pro-integration sector of virn society and politics would not need to spend nearly as much of their time persuading the ordinary virn that human culture had positive and interesting elements. No, they would be able to focus more on giving their movement the momentum it needed so that within a couple of generations, they would outnumber those who were pro-segregation.

Zuwrath reached for the case of pens on her desk, picking up a handful. She snapped them in half with one hand.

This was completely unacceptable.

Somebody was going to pay, and she knew exactly who that somebody was going to be.

~

Starg! Starg! STARG!

Starg stood his ground. He walked calmly through the hallway that led towards Zuwrath’s office, as though he had all the time in the Empire to get there. Some of the things that Maureen had done to keep him waiting over the years had annoyed him immensely, as had many of those Zuwrath had done, but they had always worked. He was not sure if the Controller’s tricks would work against her.

He did not wish to anger Zuwrath further, yet neither did he want to appear perturbed by her shouting. If she noticed that he had something to hide (as if she could not already know), then she would go to whatever ends it took to get every single scrap of information out of him.

Starg pushed open the office door, satisfied with the length of time it took to slide open, and nodded at her once. He took the seat opposite Zuwrath without her permission.

Good day, Zuwrath,’ he said smugly.

You have been spending too much time with the Liaison,’ Zuwrath replied. She glared at him as he sat, and hissed sharply. ‘Get on your feet!’

Starg did not get up. He kept his expression calm. It was difficult, because his face wanted to fall into a sly, proud smirk, but he managed it nonetheless. He kept his lips thin and tight, and his eyes wide in a false surprise as he said, ‘Is something the matter, Zuwrath?

Yes, there is something wrong!’ she replied. A few strands of her hair fell into her eyes, but she did not push them away. ‘Did you not see it?

It … it …’ Starg forced his eyebrows together and looked up at the ceiling, flickering his faze from one light to the next. He wondered if he looked as though he was confused or lying. ‘That broadcast, do you mean? Ah, yes, bits of it, now, what was it? Valhalla People? Valhalla Risen?

Valhalla Rising. Do not play the fool in front of me, Starg. I bet you watched every second of it. I bet you were salivating just thinking about it. I bet you knew long before I did.’

I happened to catch the second half of it after one of my secretaries messaged me to inform me that it was being broadcast.’

And broadcast in your region, no less.’

Starg lowered his eyes from the ceiling and returned his gaze to Zuwrath. She was leaning over her desk, both of her palms flat on the wood, her stare intimidating as her face hovered above him. He swallowed to prevent himself from flinching back at the sight of her so close.

Are you implying what I think you are implying?’ he asked Zuwrath.

What do you think I am implying?’ she replied.

That I am in some way responsible for this … this … this awful programme.’

Are you?

Of course not!

Well, how many others are there in Pika who are as close to a human as you are?’ There was a glimmer of something in Zuwrath’s eyes as she spoke, and Starg knew that she was challenging him. ‘In fact, how close are you exactly to Maureen Bradshaw? It seems to me that there may well be something more going on than what I have been led to believe.’ Starg maintained his gaze at the sneered comment. He held his head high, defying his fear of her anger. He would show Zuwrath that he was as strong as she was.

You know the Liaison is as professional as I,’ he retorted. ‘As for your first question, I would think that this is something you should know. Are you not supposed to be in control of our relationship with the humans? That is why they call you the Controller, is it not? I have no idea where the underground group who did this are, or who they are – but I would have thought that someone in your position should have known about them and stopped them before they could get this far, Zuwrath.’

Zuwrath flashed her teeth at him. ‘How dare you question my ability to do my job!’ she hissed.

How dare you accuse me of first being involved in this scandal, and secondly with the Liaison!’ Starg replied.

Zuwrath raised her arm, and for a moment Starg thought that she was going to hit him. Then, when he held his ground, she lowered it again, although the look of hatred on her face never changed.

Get out of my office.’

With great pleasure,’ he said, and left her presence as coolly as her could.

~

When Starg received news that Zuwrath, though disgraced, was not going to be removed from her position, he found himself snapping at everyone he came across in his irritation. He shut himself in his office there he stayed, hoping to remove the heavy feeling of disappointment off his shoulders.

He sat down behind his desk and tried to think of a new plan.

When nothing came into his mind, he stood up, walked around the desk, and sat down in the opposite seat, as though this might help him to think more clearly. He stared at his empty seat and scratched his chin. His tongue flickered out to wet his lips as he racked his brain for ideas.

This had been so close! The idea had excited him, thrilled him even, and now he felt the impact of a failure that was not his own, but might well have been.

Zuwrath already suspected Starg of permitting the broadcast. She knew he had permitted it, she just needed the evidence. Starg had been forced to bribe some questionable people to get the broadcast slot and he did not believe that they would keep quiet for long if the Controller found them. He could not afford to sit back and hope that Zuwrath would slip up, or that she would ignore the problem, but neither could he allow this to go much further without facing repercussions. Zuwrath likely had her own people stationed around him, watching his every move.

Whatever Starg was going to do next, he was going to have to do it quickly. He would not have much time to plot Zuwrath’s downfall.

He was not going to back down just because his time was short.

The Controller messaged him, instructing him to meet her on her advance to Valhalla, with no indication of what she had planned. Starg was no closer to a solution. He supposed that, should he see an opportunity to disgrace the Controller, then he would have to take it.

~

Zuwrath was stood in front of one hundred virn police officers dressed in full riot gear. Each held a loaded rifle. Starg saw them before he got out of his transporter, and stepped off the vehicle with the air of someone who was unnerved by the sight of so many armed officers. Zuwrath sneered as he approached her.

What is the meaning of this?’ Starg asked, once he was stood before her. He was pleased to note that his voice was steady.

It is for the humans,’ Zuwrath replied casually.

But why do you need armed officers? It was only a broadcast …

They need to be taught a lesson. I want to make sure this does not happen again. I want to make sure those behind this will not dare.’

Starg felt himself shiver a little at the uncaring tone of her voice. ‘And what about the virn who helped?’ he asked.

Zuwrath narrowed her eyes at him. Her sneer widened, and Starg was sure that she could see right through him. ‘Oh, they will get what is coming to them, too. Perhaps when they see how defiant we are to their pathetic attempts at making humans look our equals, they will think again. I can only hope that they will …’ she hissed low, as though savouring the sound on her tongue, ‘… reveal themselves in some way.’

Then we shall both hope that it is so,’ Starg replied. He swung an arm around, indicating in the direction of the camp. ‘Shall we?’ Zuwrath did not mention his sudden movement away from the subject under discussion. They began to march, the heavy footfalls of the officers behind them creating a rhythmic, doom-laden sound in Starg’s ears. Nobody would miss them coming, and nobody would be under any illusions.

Once we arrive, we will locate those responsible for this broadcast and shut them down. They should be easy enough to find – the presence of an armed force should persuade somebody to talk. The half-blood will be an easy target.’

What are you going to do with them when you find them?’ Starg asked.

Zuwrath chuckled darkly. ‘What happens will happen.’

Starg kept his eyes focused on the camp in the distance, as he said, ‘Yes, I suppose it will. And you want me with you as a show of solidarity?

I want you with me, Starg, so I know what you’re up to. To remind you I’m no fool.’

Starg did not reply. He marched in time, highly aware of the rifles behind him. The long walls that separated Pika from Valhalla came closer, but Zuwrath veered off to the right and Starg followed. The officers turned too, their boots filling the still air with thunder.

They walked around the wall, to an empty patch of land between two factories, where the wall had been knocked down to grant the workers an open space for their breaks. It was full of factory workers enjoying their limited free time. The buzz of conversation died down as they approached.

There was silence. All eyes were on Zuwrath and the officers behind her.

‘I want to speak to Maureen Bradshaw,’ Zuwrath announced. At first, nobody moved. The Controller threw her head back and snarled. ‘You,’ she said, pointing to a human male in front of her, whose legs shook as she glared at him, ‘fetch her. Now.’

The man ran away as fast as he could. Starg could not help but feel impressed by the power of her presence, even as he wondered what he could do to ruin her. He breathed through his nose slowly, trying to calm himself down as he waited. Zuwrath, apparently, felt no reason to say anything further, and seemed quite content to let everyone else around her stand in their uncomfortable silence.

As time went on, the managers of the factories came out to see why their employees had not returned. Then, other people who lived close to the factories came out of their tents and containers, curious about what was going on. The crowd of humans became so large that Starg could not tell how many of them there were.             Zuwrath made no indication that she was bothered by their presence.

After what to Starg was an age, the people at the back of the crowd began to whisper. They parted, as though to let someone through, and the movement spread through the group until it reached the front of the crowd. The human Liaison and her daughter emerged, both with expressions of polite confusion.

‘Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, as the people around them look on in amazement at her confidence to address the Controller. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’

‘Valhalla Rising!’ Zuwrath hissed. Many humans jumped in fright at the sound of her natural tongue. ‘I want the brats responsible for that offensive broadcast!

Maureen laughed. Starg could hardly believe it when he heard it. She stood there opposite Zuwrath and laughed in the Controller’s face like nothing Zuwrath could do or say could possibly frighten her. ‘Offensive broadcast?’ she asked, blatantly refusing to use virnin in response to the Controller’s outburst. She turned to the crowd behind her, and added, ‘Tell me, my friends, did any of you find Valhalla Rising offensive?’

Those who were brave enough to speak, likely encouraged by Maureen’s own display of strength, muttered words of disagreement; others shook their heads. Zuwrath snarled.

‘I care not what you people think!’ Zuwrath shouted, this time for all the humans to understand. ‘I want those who are responsible for the broadcast, and I want them now! They will pay!’

‘Pay? For what?’ Christine, who Starg had seen but once in a photograph Maureen had shown him, asked. She stepped forward as she spoke. ‘For telling virn that we’re worth no less than they are?’ There were further noises from the crowd, this time of agreement. ‘For letting them share in our culture, our society, our reality?’ The murmuring grew louder. ‘For showing ourselves as your equals?’

‘Silence!’ Zuwrath roared, as the crowd’s agreement became almost deafening. Out of the corner of his eye, Starg noticed that some of the officers behind him were uncomfortable with the crowd’s reaction: they likely did not wish for the situation to turn violent – that would be an unmitigated disaster for all involved. ‘I said silence!’ she shouted again, when some members of the crowd continued to murmur. It took a few more seconds before they fell silent again.

An idea – a terrible, awful idea – leapt into Starg’s mind. He could see the humans turning on them, and (despite their superior weaponry), they were outnumbered enough for him to foresee the humans defeating or severely harming them. He was defenceless, and he did not like it.

He turned to the officer behind him. The officer noticed the movement, and leaned towards Starg to allow the Keeper to whisper to him as Zuwrath continued to stare down the crowd. Maureen was saying something to the Controller, so she was comfortably distracted.

I think it might be a good idea,’ he whispered, ‘if the humans could see that I, too, was armed. As a former soldier. They look restless … it might be a useful deterrent.’

The officer nodded, and passed Starg his rifle. He then pulled the pistol out of its holster, and returned to his former position. Starg spun back around and fingered the rifle. He was not entirely sure what he was doing, or who he was most afraid of.

Maureen and Zuwrath were arguing over Valhalla Rising. Starg was shocked to note that Maureen was not trying to hide her role in setting up the broadcast.

‘You know who was responsible, then?’ Zuwrath asked her. ‘You, in fact, were involved in this broadcast?’

‘Not at all,’ Maureen replied. ‘Only in securing the broadcast time.’

‘You know,’ Zuwrath repeated, ‘who was responsible?’

There was a moment’s pause.

‘Yes.’

Zuwrath grinned in victory. ‘Then give me names, Liaison, or you shall be removed from your position.’

‘Oh, please,’ Maureen said, waving an idle hand. She stepped forward, away from the crowd, and began to pace up and down, her hands behind her back. ‘I’ll be stripped of my title regardless, after this. I’ve got no reason to give you anything, Zuwrath. You’ve got no authority over me. That’s why you’ve brought these officers: the only tactic left to you is intimidation. Do you think you can scare me – us – into giving you answers? Just because you’re pissed off? You do realise that this situation is a direct violation of the agreement first laid down by our parent’s generation, don’t you? Bringing troops with weapons onto human-occupied land is a physical threat to my people.’

‘I do not care about your people,’ Zuwrath spat back. ‘Just give me the names I want.’

Maureen stopped pacing and smiled at Zuwrath pleasantly. Her eyes flickered to Starg for the briefest of moments, and he gripped the rifle a little tighter in response.

‘I can only give you one name,’ Maureen replied.

‘Then give it!’

Again, Maureen’s eyes flickered to Starg.

He nodded his head to show her that he understood.

‘Do you believe in karma, Zuwrath?’ Maureen asked. ‘It’s something we humans –’

‘The name, damn you!’

Starg adjusted the rifle again, as subtly as he could.

‘It was me,’ he said.

Zuwrath turned to him, her eyes wide, and Starg could see the proud retort that she had suspected him all along written on her lips as he did the only thing that made sense in that moment.

He raised the rifle and shot her.

~

The rifle beam travelled through the space between Starg and Zuwrath as though in slow motion. On one side, the virn police officers stood, caught off-guard by the attack. They were stunned for long enough that Starg managed to duck behind a nearby metal crate before they could shoot him. On the other side, the mob of angry humans stood in equal shock, their jaws dropping open in their surprise.

Every single eye of everyone who was present had followed the beam of light from Starg’s rifle to the centre of Zuwrath’s chest. The Controller had been thrown backwards, several police officers knocked out as she landed on top of them.

She was dead before she hit them.

There was a pause. A moment when there was neither sound nor movement, and human and virn alike stared at the limp body of the bitter Controller. Then, something began to ripple through those present, and a thunderous noise erupted from the centre of the human mob. They reached around them and grabbed whatever was in their reach – bricks, stones, pieces of metal – then began to charge at the virn officers, attacking them with their fists if they had nothing else at hand.

The virn were well trained, despite their temporary lapse at Starg’s surprise attack. They reacted faster this time, turning their weapons on the humans and firing on them. Their superiority was immediately obvious, as the first wave of humans were sent crashing down into the mud and did not get back up.

The roar of the rifles did not deter the other humans, and those who managed to reach the line of officers began to beat them mercilessly. A couple managed to take hold of the rifles, which they turned on their former owners.

Both sides struck at the other, but the virn advantage was evident from the beginning. Humans fell over one another and were shot at short range, whether on their feet or their knees. Their corpses began to pile up, and still the virn continued to shoot. Maureen and Christine darted this way and that, swerving to avoid rifle beams and fists alike. Nobody seemed to know or care who they were attacking.

Maureen reached the wall, and threw a hand out for Christine to take hold of. Her daughter caught it, and Maureen dragged her around the side of the wall to protect them both. On the opposite opening in the wall, they saw Starg, who had moved from his position behind the crate to behind the wall. He still gripped his rifle. His eyes were closed, his face screwed up, as though he was trying to wake from a bad dream. He was also muttering something to himself. They were only ten strides apart, but it was too far to hear what he was saying over the noise of the fighting.

‘Starg,’ Maureen called, trying to catch his attention. ‘Starg,’ she repeated, a little louder this time, but again he made no indication that he had heard her. ‘Starg!’

Startled, he jumped out of whatever unreality he had been in. For a moment, it looked as though he was about to turn the rifle on them, and Maureen pushed Christine instinctively behind her to protect her. The moment passed, and recognition dawned in Starg’s narrow eyes.

‘Maureen!’ he called, his voice barely carrying across the empty space between them. His free hand reached out towards the two women, but they dared not cross to him in case they were shot or dragged into the fighting. Maureen shook her head, and Starg lowered the hand.

‘What’ve you done?’ Maureen asked. Starg’s eyes widened, and he took a brief glance around the side of the wall, as though he had not truly accepted the consequences of his actions yet. Then, before either of them could go any further, the mob moved back through the gap in the wall and they were surrounded by blood and screaming.

Christine tugged on Maureen’s arm, and they moved further along the wall to get away from the mob. There were no longer any rifle beams, as though the virn officers had abandoned their weaponry in favour of their fists, or else had it pried away from them by the eager but unarmed humans. Patience had worn out on both sides; there was no sense of damage control, just pure carnal rage.

Starg followed the women, dashing across the empty space that the mob had passed through. He ducked away from the fighters, and the motion caught Maureen’s eye. She spun, knocking the weapon out of his hand in one smooth movement. It landed on the ground a short distance away, and Starg watched it go, his mouth hung slightly open, his eyes clouded over.

Why did you do that?’ he asked her.

Maureen refused to speak virnin on her own land. ‘You won’t get involved in the fighting now, will you, Starg?’ she snapped at him, pointing at him with her left hand even as Christine tugged on her right. ‘You’ll shoot Zuwrath no problem, as long as you know you have some temporary advantage, but once everyone has gathered their sense, you won’t get involved. You caused all of this, and yet here you are waving a gun around in loose fingers as you hide behind corners.’

She grabbed hold of his face, and tilted his head so that Starg could see the fight. It had spread out, and other humans from deeper in the camp were starting to get involved, pulling the offending virn off one by one and joining in the attack.

‘This is what the Keeper of the Peace in Pika has done. This is your legacy, Starg.’

Starg’s face paled as he watched the brawl, Maureen’s fingers holding him tightly in place.

‘Is this how you wish to be remembered? As the man who caused this?’

‘No,’ Starg replied weakly.

‘Well, what are you going to do about it? You can’t stop them now. Here, humans and virn will die together, hating one another more than they ever have before.’

Starg grabbed Maureen by the front of her jacket with both hands, his scales digging into the flesh of her neck. ‘Hide me,’ he begged her.

Maureen turned to look at those fighting. There were humans she recognised within the crowd. People she had seen on the streets begging for scraps, people she had spoken with, people who had been shamed for the desperate things they had done just to feed their children. More lay amongst the dead. All of them were people who would have been able to live good, honest, wholesome lives, if only they had been given the chance. If only they were equal to virn.

She looked back at Starg, his pitiful face squashed between the vice-like grip of her fingers, tears beginning to form in the corners of his eyes as he watched the thoughts flickering through her mind.

‘You don’t know me nearly as well as you think, Starg,’ she said. ‘More’s the pity. We could have been friends.’ She let go of him, tossing him onto the ground. ‘You shot Zuwrath. You started this. You can deal with it.’

As she allowed Christine to drag her away from the fighting, Maureen wondered how much damage this incident was going to cause.

~

In the end, it was nothing more than a shadow. A whisper. A blur on the edge of vision, then a blinding light, and then …

As a wise virn prophet had once said, only the dead know what follows the light.

Starg did not seem them. Perhaps that was because once Maureen had disappeared, he allowed himself to sink down into the muddy ground, his tears obscuring his vision as his sobs shook his body. The world was nothing more than an obnoxious calamity of noise and violence, and there he was in the middle of it, his brain shocked beyond comparison.

This was his violence. Starg had wanted to remove Zuwrath so much that he had been blind to the consequences. In the end, he had done little more than create chaos. He was the god of the destruction that was happening around him.

He saw the outline of a rifle pointing at his head, aimed directly between his eyes. Someone must have picked it up, but he could not make out whether they were virn or humans. He saw the rifle light up, and a beam came out of the end.

Then he fell, lay still, and became one with the dead.

~

It was nobody’s surprise when Maureen resigned. She had always been determined to do her best, and witnessing the brutality of the massacre on the border of Valhalla had been the final straw for her. She delivered the resignation letter to the remains of the human government personally. Each expressed his sadness that she had chosen to leave.

Christine did her best to cheer her mother up after the initial feeling of failure, mingled with the pain of such a senseless loss of life. She did not see her mother smile one in the week that followed the attack, and that hurt. The virn government on Montague 7 did not seem to know how to handle the situation, because both the Controller and the Keeper of the Peace in Pika had been shot by virn weapons, and at least one by virn hands.

The virn media was hushed up, but the human media spoke as loudly as it could about what had happened. Valhalla Rising appeared again, to make a brief by powerful broadcast on what had happened. It was permitted to broadcast on virn channels, perhaps lest a cover-up was suspected, and made a statement on the number of dead, not distinguishing between humans and virn, decreeing it a dark day for all species. It was as respectful as they could make it, given their shattered faith.

Everybody involved in the programme knew how delicately they had to handle the situation. The human government reacted before the virn government or empire could, though they still took their time as they figured out how exactly to respond without being accused on telling only one side of the story.

A day of mourning was declared in Valhalla, one week after the massacre. Initially, Maureen refused to attend. Christine hoped that her mother might change her mind on the day, but this did not happen, and she spent most of the morning trying to figure out how she would get Maureen to the border for the scheduled time. The attack had occurred in the afternoon, and the vigil was to begin at that same time.

She was eventually forced to go alone. Maureen sat in their container, as she had done every day since the massacre, staring at a blank wall. She did not move, and she did not respond to her daughter when Christine announced that she was leaving.

When she reached the border, she was surprised at what she saw. Several people asked her where Maureen was, and she made an excuse so that she could return to the container to fetch her mother.

‘Mum,’ she said, bursting through the door, ‘come on, mum, you’ve got to come. They’re waiting for you.’

Maureen did not immediately make any sign that she had heard her daughter speak. Recognition was slow to appear on her face, and she blinked several times before turning to Christine, as though she had only just realised that her daughter was there.

‘I always told myself I was doing a good thing,’ she said, in a dry, croaky voice. ‘A good thing.’

‘And you’ve done the best you could do,’ Christine insisted. She knelt in front of her mother, looking up into Maureen’s tired eyes. She did not seem to be fully aware of her surroundings.

‘I only wanted to help people. To make things better.’

‘Mum,’ Christine said, cupping Maureen’s face with one hand, ‘this is not your fault. There’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent it. Starg had his own agenda, and the virn troops reacted to it. You couldn’t have stopped it.’

Maureen blinked a couple more times. She opened her mouth as though she was going to say something further, as though there was something on her mind that she had done or said, or should have done or should have said, but then closed it again.

‘They’re waiting for you, mum.’

‘Who are?’

‘Everyone.’

‘Everyone? Why?’

‘Because it’s a memorial for all the victims. Everyone is there, and everyone is waiting for you.’

Maureen shook her head. ‘No,’ she said, ‘no, I’m not going there.’

‘Well, you’re going to have to step outside this cannister at some point. And when you do, then everyone will ask you why you didn’t turn up to the memorial, and then you’ll regret not attending. Anyway, I think you need to see this. It’ll help.’

Maureen frowned at her, but Christine only smiled and stood, holding out a hand for her mother to take. A few moments of hesitation, and then Maureen took it, allowing her daughter to lead her outside. Maureen was dressed in clothes that she had not changed for days, but Christine did not think that her mother would have appreciated any delays had she been in her right mind at the time. Once Maureen saw what was waiting for her at the border, then she would understand.

Christine led her mother towards the border as fast as she could. Around them, groups of other humans walked in the same direction, all of them silent and solemn.

They carried candles with them, but none were lit yet. The human government had asked that nobody light the candles until they arrived at the sight for the memorial. It was typically a virn tradition to remember the war dead.

The ancient virn had apparently believed that, if the candles were lit anywhere other than on the site of the victim’s death, then any souls which the burning candle passed would follow them to the memorial site. This demonstrated a lack of respect for those who were being remembered by the lighting of the candle, and disturbed the dead. The belief had been passed down until it had become mere tradition; acknowledging it made the memorial service legitimate on a virn planet.

When Maureen and Christine rounded the final corner, and saw the gathering of people there, Maureen’s hand fell away from her daughter’s. Christine spun, half-expecting to see her mother running back the way they had come, but Maureen was stood there, staring at the gathering before her. Christine smiled.

There were countless humans there, either holding or lighting candles, but they were not alone. Stood with them, around them, between them, holding candles and keeping their silence, were just as many virn, their faces contrasting those of the humans in the flickering light. Some of them turned their heads as Maureen approached, and Christine handed her a candle to light and hold above her head. She then joined her mother with her own candle, stood by her side.

They stayed there in union, their silent vigil saying more than their words ever could have.

VALHALLA RISING – Part 8

If you haven’t read the previous chapters of VALHALLA RISING, you can find them here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

VALHALLA RISING – Part 7

I hope you enjoy this part – there’s just one part left after this one.


Funeral traditions on Montague 7 dictated that the service be held in an open public space in the middle of the day. The body was placed in a coffin and scented candles were placed around it. The scents were chosen according to old virn beliefs that connected certain smells to the personality of the deceased. The mourners wore long, pastel-coloured robes, with hoods pulled up to hide their faces from one another.

This was a tradition that humans had adopted when they had first settled on the planet. The original Controller had refused to grant humanity a sacred place to bury their dead if they did not follow the planet’s traditions, and so to avoid complications, human authorities had labelled it a planetary tradition, rather than a virn one.

Other planets in the Empire had their own traditions. It was often difficult to tell where each tradition had originated, but they often came down to the resources which had been available to the first settlers. Montague 7 had offered large open spaces with nowhere to hide tears, and so traditions had been developed accordingly.

Lukas did not get a funeral. As soon as his body was returned to Valhalla, his family burned it as a demonstration that they disagreed with what he had done. Their decision not to give him a proper funeral was mentioned as briefly as possible by the various media outlets that continued to condemn his actions, by a thirty second mention on the news channels and a small side-note in the papers.

Maria and Orion did, however, arrange a service later that same week as a demonstration against violence. They encouraged people to wear their pastel robes with the hoods down, which was supposed to show that those who attended were thinking of everyone who had suffered from the violence between humans and virn, rather than any one individual.

Christine and Rokesh turned up at the service with candles that smelt like handmade paper. Ancient virn had associated the smell of paper with information, evidence, and memories, because they had kept meticulous paper records of their lives. They placed the candles in the centre of a large tent in the centre of the site, and for a moment were overwhelmed by the combination of smells in there as they tried to pick out each individually.

They moved around the site together, walking slowly and only nodding to greet the others they met. The walls of the tent, both inside and out, were covered with photographs of the innocent virn and humans who had been killed during acts of violence between the two species. They examined the pictures in silence, and when they finally left their hearts were heavy with sorrow.

Maria, Orion, and Slick were stood together a short distance from the tent, and Christine and Rokesh approached them. It was the first time Christine had seen the others since they had discovered that Lukas had left the camp, and the tears that lined their eyes suggested she was not the only one who had been playing her last conversation with him over and over in her mind to find out if there was something she could have said to change his mind.

‘This may not be a good time for any of us,’ Christine said, after she had introduced Rokesh to the others, ‘but I’ve – we’ve,’ she corrected herself, taking hold of Rokesh’s hand and smiling, ‘got an idea that we think you could help us to make a reality.’

The three listened to Rokesh’s proposal, and as the concept became clearer in their minds, their eyes slowly began to light up. The emptiness on their faces turned to hope, and they rediscovered what had been stolen from them by Lukas.

~

Christine stood with her hands on her hips, looking around at the temporary studio that had been erected in Orion’s bedroom. He lived in one of the oldest containers, rusty and creaky, but it was surprisingly spacious with separate living and sleeping areas, and – most importantly for their needs – there was no chance that they might be interrupted.

She smiled to herself as she examined the room. It was not the best-looking studio, but it was good enough for a human broadcast. The sheet they had tossed up against the wall as a backdrop had been cleaned and ironed, and the stillness in the room made it look almost like a painted wall.

Slick was seated in the official anchor chair; having a half-virn as the head figure of the show was a big positive, because it would grant the broadcast more authenticity with the virn public. Next to him sat Maria, her hair and face painted as a legitimate and splendid replica of a rich virn lady.

It was not meant to mock, but they had worried whether it might seem that way for a while, before deciding they wanted to demonstrate that they respected virn culture as much as they wanted virn to respect their own. The make-up and hair were important elements of this, because it was one of the first things that the viewers would notice. Not to include them would allow virn to say they were ignoring virn culture.

Somehow, Christine knew, whatever decision they made would be twisted, if an interpreter truly wanted to twist it.

‘It looks good, doesn’t it?’ Orion asked Christine, He was manning the camera; hers was the microphone. They were only preparing for a rehearsal, but all recognised the necessity to get as close to perfection as they possibly could.

‘It’s very impressive,’ she agreed.

‘But something’s not right? I can see it in your eyes.’

Christine sighed. ‘It doesn’t mean anything if Zuwrath won’t give us a broadcast slot. I ignored that stumbling block for a while, but now that we’re pretty much ready for a real broadcast, it’s turned into a huge blockade. How are we ever going to persuade the Controller?’

‘Can’t your mother help? She knows Zuwrath.’

‘My mother and Zuwrath hate one another. They only work together because they must, in order to achieve their own goals. I can ask her … but I already know what she’ll say.’

Orion’s smile fell from his face. ‘You’ve got to try, Chris,’ he said.

‘I will. I’ll call her.’

~

Maureen’s communicator vibrated against her wrist for about half a second before it began to ring. She shook her arm to answer it, held it up in front of her, and an image of Christine appeared before her.

‘Hi, Chris,’ Maureen said. ‘Oh – is that your studio? It looks great! Do you know when you’ll be broadcasting yet?’

Christine smiled awkwardly, her lips pulled tight and thin. ‘Uh, no, net yet, Mum. Actually … that’s what I’m calling about. We – I mean, I – may have missed out one tiny little detail when I told you about it.’

‘You did? What detail? It sounded like such a great idea! Who’s stopping you? Is it someone in the government? What could they possibly be against – ?’

‘Mum, Mum, stop,’ Christine insisted. ‘That’s not it.’ She took a deep breath, as Maureen’s brain whirred with questions. ‘The problem is that … it’s that we don’t want to broadcast it on human channels.’

There was a long pause, during which Maureen’s brain processed this new information and Christine waited for her mother to respond.

‘You want to broadcast on virn channels?’

‘Yes.’

Another pause. Maureen’s eyes flickered shut. She sucked in a breath, then opened her eyes again. ‘Chris …’

‘Don’t tell me we can’t do it.’

‘You’re a big girl, Chris. Do you really want me to give you false hope?’

‘You can ask Zuwrath, Mum.’

Maureen laughed before she could stop herself. ‘And she could get me fired for even daring to ask! Imagine the hype in the virn media from the mere cheek of such a question! They wouldn’t even need to watch your broadcast to condemn it!’

Christine put on her best puppy dog look, the one with the big eyes that she had used when she was a child and had wanted something from her father.

‘Fine. Leave it with me. No promises.’

‘Ee! Thanks, Mum!’

‘Don’t expect much –’ Maureen began, but Christine had already ended the call and vanished. Maureen rubbed her temples with both hands and groaned. She could not ask Zuwrath if the group could broadcast their show on virn television, because the Controller would consider it a violation of the boundaries of Maureen’s position as Liaison.

Luckily, the Controller was not the only one who could give her air time. It might not be planet-wide, but things could spread across the Empire at an alarming rate.

~

Oh, hello Starg, how good to see your face again!

Starg glared at Maureen over the holographic communicator.

You want something,’ he stated, in a dry, monotonous voice.

Now really, Starg, why must you be so suspicious of me? I could be calling just to catch up with you following our last conversation.’

I could hang up,’ Starg suggested. ‘I do actually have other things to do.’

All right, fine,’ Maureen sighed. Her smile faded a little, before she deliberately curled the corners back up to maintain her warm grin. ‘There’s something I’d like to discuss with you. I was hoping we might be able to meet in person.’

I have got a lot of other things to do.’

Starg,’ Maureen said, trying not to sound as though she was frustrated or nervous, ‘I promise you, this is an opportunity you won’t want to miss. What I’m going to propose to you … I guarantee you it’ll be of great interest.

Starg’s eyes did not give any indication of temptation, and Maureen knew she might already have said too much over official channels. However, both of them were aware that she would not have called him idly. ‘I’ll give you fifteen minutes, if you can get here before the end of the day,’ Starg said. The sooner they met, Starg apparently realised, the better.

That’s great! I promise you, you won’t regret this. I’m leaving right now.’ Maureen picked up her wallet and her identification card, then left her container.

Move swiftly,’ Starg told her, before he disconnected the call. Maureen rolled her eyes when he disappeared.

‘And goodbye to you too, Mister Starg,’ she said to the blank screen. She shook her arm, and the static flickered away. Aware that time was of the essence, she hurried herself along, and caught the first transport that she could find.

~

Starg dismissed the message from Zuwrath with a flick of his wrist. Upon receiving it, he had wondered whether she had observed his conversation with Maureen and had become suspicious, but she had not mentioned their communication. That did not mean Zuwrath was in the dark, but neither did it mean Starg needed to worry himself about it too much.

The Controller was doing her best to impose increasingly harsh sanctions on the people of Valhalla, and it was having a negative effect on the districts closest to the encampment. Starg had expressed his concerns to the Controller in a written examination of her impact; her response had offered him no sympathy of any kind, and she had even suggested that it might be Starg himself who was damaging Pika.

There was no point in responding with the information Starg has that supported his claims, because Zuwrath liked to sweep aside anything that suggested Montague 7 would be better if humans were integrated into the virn-dominated world. Starg did not like humans, he thought that they were a backwards and awkward race (with some exceptions), but he recognised that the strains between both species were not going to disappear just because they were ignored.

His representatives had agreed with independent virn studies that suggested if humans and virn worked together and shared the same spaces, not only their relationships but also their productivity would increase. This had been the case with several other species who had previously been introduced into the Empire, although many pro-purity conspirators such as Zuwrath denied anything of the sort.

Humans, Starg knew in some deep part of him that was not entirely ready to face the reality of his knowledge, would be statistically less likely to be violent or aggressive to virn if they had been treated as equal to virn in the first place.

Unfortunately, the Controller was firmly allied with the more conservative parts of the virn Empire. It did not matter that she was, on paper at least, supposed to be impartial; Zuwrath served the very purpose that her position had been created for.

‘Oh, I know that look.’

Starg looked up from his communicator to see that Maureen was stood in his office. He was a little startled, but hid the shock: it was not often that Maureen entered without announcing herself first. Whatever she wanted to speak with him about, it was clearly important to her. A smile tugged at the corners of his dry lips, once the surprise had worn off, and he allowed it to take over his face. Maureen was not his favourite person to work with, but compared to Zuwrath she was most welcome.

You know it?’ he asked. Maureen chuckled to herself and walked a little closer to his desk.

May I sit?’ she asked. It was one of those filler sentences that humans used when they wished to sound polite. Starg nodded with a grunt. ‘Thanks.’ She settled herself in the chair, brushing away a few stray crumbs that the previous occupant had left on the arm. ‘I do know it, yes. That’s the look I see in the mirror after I’ve spoken to Zuwrath.’

Starg grunted again. The smile that had gripped him had faded away now. ‘The Controller does not care for my opinion on virn-human relations.’

Maureen pushed herself forwards over the desk, her hands braced on the arms of the chair. ‘And what is your opinion?’ she asked him.

Apparently it is unimportant.’ Starg knew better than to give Maureen too much information. ‘You claimed you had an interesting proposal for me?

Yes. Yes, I do.’ Maureen clasped her hands together and pursed her lips. She took her time before speaking again, a habit that Starg could not help but associate with the Controller, and when Maureen did speak it was slowly, as though she was selecting her words carefully. ‘Tell me, Starg, exactly how much would you like to make the Controller suffer?

Very much,’ Starg confirmed. His heart began to beat a little faster at the mere suggestion of the pair of them hurting Zuwrath.

Well, I think I may have something up my sleeve that could get her in serious trouble.’

Starg’s eyes widened slightly, enough that Maureen had surely spotted the movement. He held a hand up before she could say anything further, then stood up and walked around his desk to check that the door and windows were all shut. When he was sure that they would not be overheard, he walked back around the desk and sat down opposite her, leaning close enough that they could speak in whispers.

Even then, despite these safety measures, he took still one further, aware that his secretary’s understanding of human languages was not as good as his own.

‘Do you have a plan already formed?’ Starg asked.

‘Better than that. I’ve got a whole team of people ready to carry it out. Everything is prepared, all we need is one simple favour from you.’

‘What do you need?’

Maureen grinned, showing a full set of teeth. She held Starg’s gaze for a few seconds. ‘Air time on virn television,’ she said.

Starg leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. ‘I can’t give you that. Why would you want that?’

‘We’ve designed a programme to show a virn audience the real human experience, from the human perspective. I know as well as you do, if a human show gets broadcast on virn television, especially one that claims us as equals, then Zuwrath will get in serious trouble for allowing it. Oh, you and I might too, but it’d be worth it to bring her down.’

‘Have you asked her about it?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Because you know she is too careful to give you an opportunity to embarrass her.’ Starg folded his arms across his chest. He grimaced, trying to imagine what possible results Maureen could gain from such a display. The question of whether the average virn would accept humans as their equal was an intriguing one, but even more intriguing was the question of what would happen to Zuwrath after the broadcast had been made.

He wondered, too, what the consequences might be for himself, and for the Liaison, but an image of a publicly shamed Zuwrath was entirely too distracting.

Maureen moved her hands from the arms of her chair to Starg’s desk and leaned closer to him, their faces inches apart. ‘A new Controller,’ she said, as though she had read Starg’s mind.

‘A potentially worse Controller,’ Starg commented. ‘Potential termination of my job.’

‘A potentially sympathetic public willing to listen to sympathetic Keepers,’ Maureen corrected him. ‘And a sympathetic public would accept only a sympathetic Controller.’

Starg pursed his lips.

‘Do you believe what you say?’ he asked. The look in Maureen’s eyes was wild, her pupils blown wide and her excitement evident. She made no effort to disguise what this conversation meant to her.

‘Of course. Every word.’

‘And Zuwrath would, certainly, not be allowed to remain after such an impressive blunder.’

Maureen did not reply, but she did not need to. She could read Starg far better than he sometimes felt he could read himself. She gave him time to think the idea through for himself. He knew that Maureen’s silence was meant to encourage him; she knew he wanted what she was offering. His life and his job – if he still had a job – would both be infinitely better without Zuwrath to crush his every attempt at a mutual, forward-thinking relationship with humans.

In small steps, of course. If Starg had to be the one to make the first step, then, he decided, he would do it with pride.

‘Perhaps it is not such a poor idea after all,’ he mused eventually, ‘to see a human broadcast on virn television. We have all sorts of broadcasts these days, after all, coming from all corners of the Empire. Yet there is always room for more. I have the authority to grant you broadcast time in Pika. Zuwrath only has the authority to stop me if she hears what I am doing ahead of time.’

‘Then you agree to allow us to broadcast? Before Zuwrath can get wind of this?’

Starg reached up with one hand to scratch his chin, but this time his reaction was for effect. He had already made his decision, and Maureen knew it. Ridding himself of Zuwrath had been Starg’s main aim for almost as long as he had worked as Keeper of the Peace. He was merely making a show for the Liaison.

‘When do you wish to broadcast?’

‘We should be ready one week from now.’

‘At what time do you wish to broadcast?’

‘Prime time. When virn families sit down to share their evening meal. Every generation watching.’

‘That request will be almost impossible to fulfil.’

‘I like the sound of that.’

‘You like it?’

‘Yes. Almost. You said “almost”, Starg.’

The Keeper of the Peace grinned. ‘I did say that,’ he agreed.

‘Then you can do it?’

‘A week from today, prime time,’ Starg said, making a mental note for himself to find as much money as he could to bribe the best programmer he could afford. ‘On a popular channel. So it shall be. Look out for my messages – they will be protected and encoded.’

‘Of course,’ Maureen smiled. ‘We wouldn’t want Zuwrath to find out before the broadcast can be made.’

Starg’s grin widened, all teeth and tongue. ‘Was there anything else?’ It was a difficult question to ask when all he wanted to do was offer Maureen a strong drink. This was a reason to celebrate, and yet there they were, busy making small talk across his desk as though their plotting was entirely insignificant.

‘Nothing I can think of.’ Maureen pushed herself to her feet. ‘If this goes off without a hitch, then I’ll buy you a drink. Or two. Heck, I’ll buy until you black out.’

            ‘I warn you, I can hold my drink well.’

‘I look forward to finding out exactly how well.’

With those words, she left Starg to wonder what impact his decision would have for them all.

~

By the time that Maureen had arrived back at the camp, Starg had already forwarded a message directly to the private system installed in her home.

Christine and Rokesh met her outside their container, and her daughter threw her arms around her. Maureen chuckled, then pried Christine’s fingers off her.

‘Why, whatever is it?’ she asked jokingly.

‘Pika,’ Christine said, ‘prime time. One week from tomorrow. I mean, it took us a little time to figure out the message, because I haven’t used your private codes in a while, but – oh, Mum, thank you so much!’

Impressed by Starg’s efficiency and that he had kept his promise, Maureen could only smile.

‘Just make sure it’s worth it,’ she replied, patting Christine on her back.

‘We will.’

The Tourist and the Local

Did you – ?
Did you see that?
Oh my gosh!
How can they
Just walk across the road
Without looking
Like that?

Oh, look!
It’s always amusing
To see people stop
And stare
At the traffic.
You can see the questions
Forming
In their minds.

What?
Oh, well now,
I think I’ll have one of these
And one of those –
Oh, and one of those, too;
Today, I’ll go here,
Tomorrow I’ll go there:
Everything
Is so cheap here!

I cannot believe
How much they charge
For that.
These people
Have got money
Falling out
Of their pockets.

There’s so much to do!
How do I decide
Where to go,
What to do,
Where to stay,
What to eat,
What to buy …
How can I possibly choose?

If they’re not
More careful
With that bag
Hanging loosely from their shoulder
On that thin strap,
Then …

I could party
All day, all night
Out here!
If only – oh no!
Ah –
No!
My bag!
Snatched right out of
My fingers!

It’s a shame,
Really,
It is.
A thief on a motorbike
Is much faster
Than a drunk
On foot.


© Laura Marie Clark

Excerpt from the book “City of the World”

If you’d like to know more about this book and the others I have contributed to, please visit my author page and share my adventure:
http://www.ctupublishinggroup.com/laura-marie-clark.html

VALHALLA RISING – Part 7

If you haven’t read the previous chapters of VALHALLA RISING, you can find them here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

I hope you enjoy this part!


‘Starg,’ Maureen said, staring across the desk at the virn, ‘I’m waiting.’

‘And what exactly are you waiting for?’ Starg asked her. He spoke carefully in his sharp accent, uncomfortable with human language. Maureen tapped her nails on his freshly polished desk, generating a clicking sound that irritated his ears. He gritted his teeth, and she stopped when she saw his glare. The smirk on her face told him that she had known exactly how the sound would affect him.

‘I’m waiting for you to tell me why this latest attack proves that all humans are undisciplined, violent monsters.’

Starg tilted his head to one side and studied Maureen through narrowed eyes. She appeared to be almost bored, likely fed up with dealing with incidents such as this. He centred his head again, once he had decided upon what to say.

‘The ancient virn on Vir 4 – our planet of origin, so they say – used to believe in a creature called Clarisnador. Have you heard of it?’

Maureen shook her head.

‘It was supposed to be two virn high, white like an albino, with thick black hair and a long beard that covered its entire body. It wore no clothes. Ancient virn believed Clarisnador stalked the streets on the one night each year that evil spirts could cross into the physical world. The monster was claimed to be invisible to those virn who had not committed major sins – but murders, rapists, and the like would be chased by it until it caught them and killed them.’

‘Interesting,’ Maureen commented. ‘I do enjoy old folklore.’

Starg allowed his grin to split his face. ‘Oh, but it wasn’t just a story. Not according to one text, anyway. Apparently, if you believe it, a tall, pale man was responsible for stalking people through one town and stabbing them on their doorsteps. He only did it on that one night every year, because he knew that the superstitious folks would blame evil spirits. He got away with it for six years, after which he was caught and burned alive by the townsfolk. A few decades later, and the story had spread so rapidly it had become legend.

‘Some virn scholars dispute the legitimacy of the text,’ Starg continued, ‘and others claim that it is a later source, perhaps written to explain the origins of the legend. Whatever the truth is, it is thought-provoking.’

‘You know, Starg, I usually feel like I’m the one who says thing just to fill the empty space between us. That’s what I’m told by a lot of the virn I work with. As Zuwrath has said to me once before, and I quote: “The air has no need for your words”. So, tell me, what’s the point of your tangent?’

‘The point,’ Starg clarified, ‘is that sometimes we hear a story about one monster, and we take that one monster and turn it into a hundred different monsters. I didn’t think about it until I was reading about the history of the Clarisnador the other night.’ He shrugged his shoulders, and suddenly felt the need to clarify his curiosity. ‘We all have our outside interests.’

‘It seems that our outside interests are quite similar in some respects.’

‘Perhaps so. And I just happened to think about it, as I was reading – I just happened to notice the similarities between the origins of that monster, and how we create the monsters of today.’

Maureen’s face told him that she knew exactly what he was trying to avoid saying. ‘Haven’t I said all along,’ she said, ‘that you shouldn’t attempt to judge humans based on how a small minority of us have behaved? The majority of us condemn the violence just as much as you do.’

‘Yes. Yes, you have said that. And, likewise, we condemn our own people when virn … misbehave.’ Starg scratched the back of his neck. ‘I have already been briefed about the attack, by the way. One virn in hospital, his tail should start to grow back in a couple of days. I hear it’s a painful process. Three virn dead, their families have been informed. The human was shot dead by virn officers, and you’ll be allowed to take his body back to Valhalla with you today.’

‘His family will be grateful for that. I should tell you, by the way, that Jakub Starosta has decided to formally resign his post. No word on who’ll take his place.’

‘That seems sensible. As for the body – it’s a sign of good faith, something to keep your people quiet. I think Zuwrath is concerned that the story behind why the human was there and what he was trying to defend might get out. You don’t know how virn would react to that – she wants to keep the family in her good books.’ Starg sighed heavily. ‘I said it, but – it really is true. You and I, Maureen, we’re not very different. We both could cause great damage to the other, whether through our words or our actions. Neither of us wants to be belittled by the other – neither of us would tolerate that for long.’

‘And those things extend to the rest of our people.’

‘I cannot condone –’

‘Neither can I,’ Maureen stressed immediately. ‘I abhor and oppose all violence. I refuse to support violent humans and I refuse to support violent virn.’

‘Good. And I also.’

‘Good.’

There was a lengthy silence as the two of them communicated on a level that was beyond speech, their eyes saying more than their words ever could. For the first time since he had met her, Starg felt as though Maureen truly understood him, and he her.

‘This leaves us in a position that we’ve never been in before,’ Maureen said at last.

‘It does. But it also does not. I can agree with you to an extent that virn stereotyping of humans is encouraging some of your people to counter in inappropriate ways, but I still need to deliver a suitable punishment for the violence. If I do not, someone else will take my place and deliver it instead. Whether they are my actions or the actions of the next Keeper, they will create more monsters in the eyes of the arrogant and the ignorant.’

‘I expect nothing less than repercussions – and I do want you to keep your job, Starg. I would hate to have to build this kind of relationship from the ground with someone new. But you must do your best to stress that there is also good in humanity – not just to highlight the bad behaviour. The positives need to be emphasised more.’

Starg grimaced. ‘It is a lot easier to create monsters than heroes.’

Maureen reached across the desk and grasped hold of his hand. Starg noticed that her skin was a little warmer than his own. It was smooth, and seemed more at risk of damage. It was a surprisingly pleasant touch.

‘I’m not saying it’ll happen overnight. I’m not saying it’ll happen in our lifetimes. But, if we make a start today, if we begin something to change how we all treat one another, then people will remember you for that.’

Starg’s grimace turned into a smile. He liked the idea of being remembered for being the one who had implemented the change that would improve virn-human relations.

~

When Zuwrath read what Maureen had written to her about the attack on Lukas’ younger brother and how this had warped Lukas’ mind, all Hell broke loose. The Controller stepped out in front of a group of questioning virn reporters and practically roared her response to the press.

The Controller Zuwrath, by whose might humankind has been granted such marvellous potential, which day-by-day they squander as they do everything to avoid their responsibilities,” stated one infamous website, “has stated that certain sections of the human government are attempting to blame the recent attack that left one virn seriously injured and three dead on the heads of the poor victims. She has retorted furiously against these slanderous lies and requests the immediate removal of anyone who has been involved in creating or spreading such nonsense from the government of Valhalla.”

Maureen did not read the rest. Another message, this time a personal one from Zuwrath herself, flashed up on her communicator screen. She looked at Starg who was still sat there across her on the other side of the desk, then opened it.

Jakub will take the blame for the governing body’s lies, the message said.

Maureen opened a blank document and typed up a response.

So, no word on the virn teens who attacked a human child and left him scarred?

She hovered her hand over the communicatory. One swipe left would send the message.

            She swiped right and deleted it.

‘Why did you write that message if you were not planning to send it?’ Starg asked her. He had been reading the news report too, and had watched her respond to Zuwrath in silence. An open bottle of virn gin and two glasses sat between them. Maureen picked up her glass and drained it, before placing it back on its coaster.

‘It helps me to think more clearly if I get my feelings down first,’ she explained. ‘Then I delete them. Nobody who works in politics is withdrawn from what’s going on … we all have real, raw feelings about the sensitive issues we must handle. I’ve got to keep face for the public – so I discard my emotions before I start.’

Starg nodded to show that he understood. ‘Humans use language to express themselves far more than we do. We have always expressed our emotions on our faces, in our behaviour. Your people have created a whole system of words around yours.’

‘Yes.’ Maureen poured herself another glass of gin; Starg emptied his glass and held it up for Maureen to refill. ‘We use our faces and our bodies to express things too, Starg, but our words are powerful things. That’s why many humans think virn talk as if they’re stuck up.’

‘Your people are more open than mine.’

‘Do you think that’s a negative thing?’ It was a genuine question. Maureen waited for Starg to respond with a sense of curiosity.

‘I am not sure about it,’ he said at last. He pursed his lips, frowning a little, then continued. ‘At first, I was convinced it was a bad thing. But I now recognise that the way your people express emotions enables you to see them in a different way than we do. For instance, we see anger as a demonstration of power, because of its physical dominance; you see it as a loss of power, a loss of control, because it makes humans say things that they might not typically say.’

‘Yes. I’m always a little surprised when the virn media talks about Zuwrath’s fury as a display of her strength. I never expect it to be seen in that way.’

‘But it is a strength to us. She is very controlled. She knows how to use her anger.’

‘Well, I don’t disagree with you on that.’

Starg’s communicator lit up at that moment, and he lifted up his arm.

‘Talking of Zuwrath,’ he said, looking down at the light coming from his wrist. The sleek device was several models above Maureen’s own communicator, and she expected it could do things that hers could only dream of.

‘Should I leave?’

‘No. It’s just a message. You can stay to see whatever she wants to say.’ Starg shook his arm, and the message popped up between them, the text readable from either side and divided by a white background.

STARG, the first line read in large letters, DENY ALL REPORTS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST HUMANS.

‘I don’t think she could’ve made that any clearer than she has,’ Maureen said. Starg chuckled.

‘The plainness of her message is quite evident,’ he said with a smile. Maureen smiled back: Starg was not funny in the slightest, but at least he was willing to admit to what was going on around them. Maureen was tired of having to explain every single point she wished to make to virn who did not want to examine issues from the human perspective.

Starg flicked his hand at the screen and the page scrolled down. They continued to read in silence.

Any virn crimes against humans will be considered as a counter-attack to (or defence against) human violence and will not be discussed with the media or other persons deemed likely to share this information with third parties. Any information on virn crimes that becomes available in Pika will be considered YOUR slip-up. The penalty will be your sacking and the blame will be on your shoulders for creating false stories as a human sympathiser. All reports of virn violence against humans will be denied vehemently by you and your staff. There will be no discussion.

‘Does it strike you as incredibly strange that Zuwrath doesn’t want ordinary virn to know that some of their own kind are attacking humans?’ Maureen asked, once Starg had turned his eyes away from the screen.

‘Perhaps she thinks it is best not to escalate things,’ Starg suggested. He did not look at Maureen when he spoke, instead focused on his hands.

‘Or perhaps she has realised that because she has painted all humans as monsters due to the violent actions of a few, admitting that virn are violent to us would apply the same logic onto her own – your own – people.’

Starg’s eyes found Maureen’s face at last. A tongue snaked out of his mouth to wet his dry lips for the merest moment. ‘I think you should go now,’ he said.

Maureen did not miss the way that his eyes contradicted his words. She got out of her chair and left the room.

~

Rokesh saw how Lukas’ actions had torn Christine apart. Her very appearance seemed to have been affected, as though the questions that were flittering through her mind were darkening her looks. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and she appeared to be sick. The marks under her eyes were purple with exhaustion. She began to come out with spots from the stress, and no matter how often Rokesh told her that he did not care, she hid herself away because of them.

Rokesh tried to encourage Christine to go outside of the container with him, because whenever he went out alone he was aware of countless human eyes upon him. He was not the only half-human in the camp, but they were rare enough that he felt the pressure of judgement.

Everybody stared. He was a spectacle. It was a little selfish, but Christine needed to get out.

One evening, he came back from the wash rooms to find Maureen and Christine talking together quietly. Rokesh did not try to disguise his presence, but he made sure to give them space and sat on the other side of the container until their conversation was over.

‘It’s not your fault, Chris,’ Maureen said, louder, and Rokesh was surprised to realise that Christine somehow blamed herself for what Lukas had done. ‘You couldn’t have stopped him.’

‘I sh – sh – should’ve said something to s – stop h – him,’ Christine replied between sobs. Her voice was muffled, her head rest on her mother’s shoulder. Maureen had one arm wrapped around Christine’s shoulders and was rubbing her back affectionately.

‘Come on, now, you can’t think like that. Lukas was his own man. What do you believe you could’ve done to change his mind?’

‘I – I don’t kn – know. Something. There must have been something.’

‘Nothing, Chris,’ Maureen said, shaking her head. ‘There’s nothing you could’ve done. I know it’s hard, but you need to accept that. Until you do, you won’t be able to move on.’

Christine cried all night long. She refused to allow Rokesh to touch her or hold her. Her sobs echoed around the container and kept all three of them up, although there was nothing that could console her.

‘If only there was something …’ Rokesh muttered to himself, half-delirious, at four in the morning.

Then a mad thought entered his mind, and jammed itself in there, refusing to leave.

~

Chris,’ Rokesh said the next day, ‘I want you to come with me to the market today. I have an idea that I want to talk to you about and I think you would be able to envision it more clearly if you came with me.’

Christine wiped away the tears that still clung to the corners of her tired eyes and smiled weakly. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Rok,’ she replied. ‘People will see me.’

Are you embarrassed about being seen with me?’ he asked. His father had taught him a lot about reading between the lines of what humans said and what they really meant. Christine’s eyes widened in shock, as though she had not considered this interpretation, and shook her head.

No, no, of course not!’

Then what is it that you feel so ashamed of?

I – it’s just, well, I mean – a lot of people knew I was friends with Lukas.’

Oh, people know all sorts of things,’ Maureen piped up. She was sat at the table, hunched over a solitary slice of toast, her eyes drooping. ‘People used to know that Earth was the only populated planet in the universe. They used to know that humans were the only intelligent species in existence. They used to know that nothing was more important than money, power, and possessions.

Well, look at us now. We know different now.’ Maureen jabbed the knife she had been using to butter her toast in Christine’s direction. ‘You know you didn’t support Lukas’ actions. Rokesh knows it. I know it. Some of those people out there, they don’t even know the name of the Controller. So, you stick to knowing what you know, and let them know whatever they know. Besides,’ she added as an afterthought, rubbing her eyes with her free hand, ‘I need to get some rest and I can’t do it with you two stuck in here.’

Christine’s smile fell from her face. ‘Mum,’ she said, ‘I – I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you awake last night, you must be so busy with all this and you were only trying to make me see sense. I couldn’t have done anything to stop Lukas.’

I’ll forgive you for it all,’ Maureen replied, ‘if you go to the goddamn market.’

They shared a laugh, and Christine and Rokesh left the container. It was bright outside, and although people stared at them and whispered behind their hands as they got closer to the market, something within Rokesh told him to ignore it. Just before they got to the first stall, he grabbed Christine’s hand and dragged her to one side.

Wait,’ he said, ‘come this way with me.’

What? Why?’ she asked, but allowed him to lead her nonetheless. Rokesh did not reply immediately. He took Christine down a side street and they emerged before one of the large screens in the centre of Valhalla, where a subtitled virn news programme was broadcast on the side of a stone wall, twenty-four hours a day. Rokesh stopped and faced the screen in silence.

Rok,’ Christine said, ‘I need an explanation for this, please.’

Rokesh turned away from the screen and looked at Christine. Over her shoulder, an elderly man glared at the couple, but whether it was because of his species or the fact that they were speaking in virnin, he did not care. He wrapped an arm around Christine’s shoulder and pulled her closer, so that her head was on his chest. She leaned into him a little more, placing one of her hands over his heart.

Why are we here?’ she asked again, when he still did not answer.

I want to watch this,’ he said quietly.

Why? The only things they say about us on this channel are negative. Mum says it’s only played here to remind us that our place is here, and that when we leave it causes trouble for everyone. The human news channels are better – you can get them in some of the cafes in Caesar Plaza.

No,’ said Rokesh, ‘I want to watch this one.’

They stood there in silence for a while as a propaganda played on. People stood in the square from time to time, hoping to get a glimpse of the goings-on outside the camp, but they never stayed for long.

All right,’ Christine said, during one story concerning a famous celebrity couple who had announced their engagement, ‘have you seen enough now?

Rokesh thought to himself. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Let’s head to the market.’

They walked around the market, but did not purchase anything. It was good to get out of the container and spend some time as a couple. Other people’s eyes mattered less and less the longer that they were on display. Eventually, they became bored and reached the first stall, which Rokesh had originally pulled Christine away from.

Before we go back to the container,’ Rokesh said, pausing just beyond the stall, ‘there’s something I want to tell you. I’ve been thinking about it since earlier this morning, so it’s not particularly well thought out just yet. But it’s important.

Sure thing,’ said Christine, ‘go on.’

We should create a programme that shows all the good things about human culture, and we should broadcast it inside and outside of Valhalla.’

Christine did not say anything for a few moments. By the time that she spoke, Rokesh had already decided that, now that it had been said aloud, it did not seem like such a good idea after all.

There’s no way we could get permission to do that,’ she said. ‘Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to make and broadcast a programme.’

Well … I thought we could make something basic. One set, a table and a couple of chairs, a nice backdrop, some lights, some cheap recording equipment. Virn culture is broadcast into Valhalla all the time, on news channels and within schools and factories. If we could pick out the best parts of humanity, the parts that might make humans seem harmless to everyday virn, then virn might start to accept that there is so much more to humanity than what they’ve been told.’

Rokesh … that’s a really good idea. Where did all this come from?

It is? I saw how upset you were last night, and I just thought … and then I wondered if it was possible, so I wanted to watch the news and see how the virn on there act. You see, if we were going to broadcast on virn channels, we would need to look and act like they do to get their respect. It would need to be as presentable as possible, however cheap.’ He paused, but when Christine did not reply, he added, ‘So, do you think it’s possible?

I think it could really make a difference, long-term. I mean, think about it! If ordinary virn could learn more about humans and human life, and see the ways in which we’re similar as well as they ways we’re different, then some of the barriers that have been built between us might start to crumble! Of course, there’s hatred inherent in both societies, but …

One step at a time,’ Rokesh said.

Yes. Like mum’s always said: “Be patient, be good, and things will change for the better”.’

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

If you need to catch up with Valhalla Rising before reading this part, here are the links:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

We’re getting through the story now; I hope you enjoy this part!


Zuwrath was busy reading a damning report on the working conditions in the factories of Valhalla when her secretary announced the surprise arrival of the human Liaison. The report had been written by a famous pro-integration journalist who was known for interfering in the treatment of other species by the Empire.

The Controller saved the report and closed it, the sections that she had highlighted for deletion still flashing before her eyes. It was a good thing the media would now have to run all reports about humans via Zuwrath before publishing them, because if this story got out she could foresee a backlash from the more liberal parts of the virn community.

The liberal community was substantial enough to be an issue. It was largely composed of students and young people who had become tired of the old ways, as well as older virn who had either witnessed the poor treatment of other species or sympathised with them in some way. Zuwrath knew the liberals had gained control of the media before, in the cases of other species and other settlements, and it always ended in the same way. Once they started to get their way, they gained increased support from the masses, and eventually the aliens species was integrated into virn society – forever obliterating essential elements of virn culture and values.

Zuwrath folded her arms across her chest and called for Maureen to enter. The human woman poked her head around the doorway first, an annoying grin plastered on her face, before the rest of her body followed.

Good afternoon, Controller Zuwrath,’ Maureen said.

What is it?’ Zuwrath asked. She felt her mouth twitch as Maureen continued to smile despite them both being aware that the human considered the Controller to be extremely rude.

Oh, I just have a little request, is all,’ Maureen replied. There was an air of something in her unusually high voice that Zuwrath had come to associate with deception. She walked across the room and sat down in the seat opposite Zuwrath. ‘About an incident that occurred the other day on the northern border of Valhalla.’

What incident?’ Zuwrath reached for the pile of documents on her desk. She had not seen anything there that she had expected Maureen to be concerned about – at least, not any more concerned than the Liaison usually was.

Well, it probably hasn’t been reported to you yet,’ Maureen said. Her smile widened a little, but it was the opposite what she said next. ‘A human child was attacked and injured by a virn teenager on the northern border. The family and friends of the child would like it to be reported in the virn media, because, according to your own rules, the human media can’t operate outside Valhalla. They’re not looking for anything especially long-winded or detailed, you understand – just some recognition of the fact that this boy will be scarred for the rest of his life following this attack.’

Zuwrath maintained her disinterested expression until Maureen’s smile finally faltered. The Controller unfolded her arms and placed her hands flat on the desk before her, pressing a little on the wood. The desk creaked, and she hissed.

No.’

Excuse me?’ Maureen asked. She did not look entirely surprised. Zuwrath would have thought the Liaison a fool if she had been. The question had been short, but the tone of Maureen’s voice had obviously changed, the softness replaced by something deep and dark.

I said no. You have not even given me the details of this incident, just some hear-say from some humans on the northern border. Tell me: why was the child unattended? Where were its parents? What were they doing that was too important to look after their offspring? What is so wrong with the education of human children that they think they can approach virn children and rile them up?

No, no, no, Zuwrath, the kids didn’t rile anybody up – this was a group of children, for crying out loud!

It was the moment Zuwrath waited patiently for every time she met Maureen, the moment when the human woman because so discouraged by Zuwrath’s lack of movement that her uncontrolled anger took over. It did not always happen, but when it did, it was beautiful. Maureen’s eyes would get dark, her face would go pale, her lips would tighten and the wrinkles on her head would become increasingly prominent. The Liaison could not maintain a steady expression for as long as Zuwrath could.

Children,’ continued Zuwrath, as though she had not heard Maureen, ‘whose parents are so stupid that they believe the stories their young children invent without a second thought. Parents who believe their young could not possibly have been aggravating a group of good virn teens!

No, that’s not it! That’s –’ Maureen began, and Zuwrath felt a surge of excitement as the Liaison looked ready to launch herself into a full argument. The length of a breath later, and Maureen’s entire demeanour changed. She paused, frowned to herself, and glared at a spot on the ceiling. ‘Fine. Fine – I’ve got somewhere to be, anyway.’

The Liaison stood up abruptly and brushed herself down. She stepped away from the desk and began to walk away, but twisted her body around to face Zuwrath before she reached the door.

Beware, Zuwrath. There’s an old human saying: pride comes before a fall. You look incredibly proud to me.’

Zuwrath watched her go. The Controller snarled and reopened the report.

~

Christine and her friends liked to hang out at Caesar Plaza. The plaza was named after a famous emperor, although few humans recognised his significance. Caesar was a figure from the past of a world they only knew about from stories and images. They were about as displaced from Caesar as they were from the virn.

Caesar Plaza had cafes, bars, and places to sit and chat, as well as music and other live performances. It was a centre of human culture, located in the north west of the camp. There, Christine and her friends would eat, drink, chat, and listen to the performers.

It was tough to get a spot playing there, because every human child had the dream of performing in Caesar Plaza. The performers were paid well, they were tipped well, and they were respected. Valhalla was in dire need of entertainment.

Many of the friends from Christine’s youth had gone on to live their own lives, but a few of them remained.

Lukas was the grandson of Jakub Starosta. He was unemployed, and (unlike his grandfather) had a lack of interest in the idea of integration. Unlike Christine, the majority of her generation had been born to parents who had experienced the virn lack of sympathy for humans first-hand and had become fed up with it. Their anti-virn feelings had given Lukas – and many of their fellows – a foul view of virn from a young age.

Maria was slightly older than the others. She had worked in one of the factories in the walls of Valhalla for more than ten years and it had hardened her. She had seen people wounded by the machinery in those factories, and had herself suffered from the low rates of pay and poor worker conditions. Although a promised wage was better than no wage at all, she had decided that it was not worth the risk to her life. She had quit her job and now made jewellery, which she sold cheaply to travellers driving through the surrounding territories.

Orion has been named after a famous constellation visible from the Earth. He was the youngest of Christine’s close friends and he worked in one of the cafes in Caesar Plaza. It was a good job, with the potential for him to advance to supervisor or even manager in the future, although those positions were always hotly fought over. He could get his friends group discounts on food and drinks, which was a good thing in the north-west, as it was the wealthiest part of Valhalla.

Slick was the first half-human, half-virn Christine had ever met. His virn mother had originally come to Valhalla to help the human settlers, but she had fallen in love with his father when she had nursed the man back to health from a bad case of pneumonia. Slick was the eldest of their three children. He was thought to be the first of his kind, and the virn media had been quick to condemn both him and his mother following his birth.

Slick’s face was tanned and smooth, apart from a smattering of green scales beneath his eyes. His hair was wiry, like virn hair, and he had a short, stubby tail. His body was half covered in scales, and half in hair. He could not inflate himself to defend himself against predators, a matter that had become something of a running joke for those who knew him. By the standards of blood purists like Zuwrath, Slick was a poor excuse for a virn. It was a good thing that he did not care.

Interbreeding was not uncommon among virn, but the concept that humans were an inferior species had led to many condemning breeding with humans. Blood purists claimed that Slick and those like him were dumb, slow, and mentally unstable because they were part-human. His friends knew better than this, but then Maureen had taught Christine long ago that it was almost impossible to persuade someone they were wrong when they did not wish to be persuaded.

Christine met her friends at one of the cafes on the outskirts of the plaza, where the music was quieter and there were fewer eyes and ears to pry. Slick had messaged her to join them urgently, but to go alone and to tell nobody where she was going. When she had asked him why it was so secretive, he had only repeated his request for her to meet them, adding that he needed her support. Intrigues, she had told Rokesh and her mother that she was going for a walk and that she would be back later for her supper. They had not questioned her.

When she arrived at the café, the others were sat outside at one of the round plastic tables. Their heads were pressed together, and they were whispering to one another in hurried voices. Christine could not make out what they were saying, but she could tell that they did not wish to be overheard. She hesitated; Slick, apparently not as engrossed in the conversation as the others, spotted her out of the corner of his eye.

‘Chris!’ he said, perhaps a little louder than he had expected, and stood up, scraping his chair across the ground. The other three jumped at his movement. They turned as one to see Christine stood nearby.

‘Chris!’ Lukas exclaimed, moving out of the tight circle and throwing his arms into the air. He shifted his chair so that they could get a fifth person around the table. ‘Come over here, come and join us!’

Once Christine sat down, Lukas practically forced her into their huddle. Slick, who had sat back down and was opposite Christine, caught her attention. His eyes seemed to flash as he attempted to communicate something to her silently.

‘What’s going on?’ she asked. ‘Why all the secrecy?’

‘Shh! Shh!’ Lukas hissed at her, glancing around, presumably to ensure that nobody was listening to their conversation. ‘Keep your voice down!’

‘Lukas,’ Maria said, a note of warning in her voice, ‘don’t you think –’

‘I already know what I think,’ Lukas hissed, cutting her off. ‘Don’t you think we’ve put up with enough? Can’t you hear them laughing at us, over the walls and beyond the borders of our camp? Every day on the news, in the papers, on the wireless … they mock us and criticise us and label us as inferior people. Well, if they want to learn the hard way, then I say we teach them the hard way.’

‘But what you’re talking about is madness,’ Slick said, his eyes again flashing at Christine.

‘I have to admit,’ said Orion, ‘I don’t count myself amongst the people who do the kind of things you’re talking about. I have endured much – my family has endured much. But they have not yet endured enough for me to consider this.’

‘My family has,’ Lukas replied. ‘My brother has. He will never look the same again, not after what that virn scum did to him.’

The group fell silent at the spat insult. Christine looked from one friend to the next, until she had made her way around the table. She was clearly missing something.

‘I … don’t think I understand,’ she said. ‘What’re you talking about?’

‘Some virn teenagers attacked my brother,’ Lukas told her. His fists clenched, and he ground his teeth loud enough that Christine could hear them scrape together. ‘It was on the border to the north. But I spoke to some of the locals there, and they reckon those virn go there a lot. When I find them, I’m going to repay them in kind for what they’ve done.’

‘What? Don’t be ridiculous!’

‘That’s what we’ve been saying to him,’ Slick said.

‘This is my brother,’ Lukas repeated. ‘The whole family is distraught. Grandpa Jakub kept going on and on about proper political procedure, but what has proper political procedure done for our people so far? In the last fifty years, how far have we come? Someone needs to teach these bastards a lesson.’

‘And you think you’re the man to do that?’ Maria asked, her eyebrows disappearing into her hair. ‘Come on, Lukas, this is crazy talk. You’re not a violent man, the very idea of you committing an act of –’

‘An act of what, exactly? Revenge? Nothing could persuade me of the need to correct these pathetic virn more than what they’ve already done.’

‘No, no way,’ Christine said. She glanced over her shoulder, an involuntary movement, to make certain that they were still alone. The only other people seated outside the café were a couple on the farthest table, who seemed too deeply engrossed in their date to care what the group was whispering about. ‘You can’t be serious, Lukas. This isn’t who you are. Your grandfather is correct – the proper political procedure is the right path to take.’

‘And just how longer are you willing to wait for them to grant us the equality we deserve, Chris? One generation? Two? Are you willing to see your grandchildren scarred – even killed – by virn who hate us and treat us as inferior just because we were born human? Are you willing to wait forever?’

‘The only way we’ll be waiting forever is if humans continue to react violently,’ Christine replied, to nods of agreement from the other three. ‘There’s no better way to persuade the virn that we’re inferior, brutish, and not ready to be integrated into their society than by committing barbarous acts against their people. You want to see equality? Be democratic and patient. We have to show virn that we are good, perhaps even better than some of them. We have to be tolerant, we have to show them that we can live in harmony with them.’

‘And what if we can’t?’

‘But of course we can!’ Orion said. ‘Other species have done it before us.’

‘Apparently. There are still violent pro-virn groups.’

‘There are violent groups on both sides, no doubt.’

‘Exactly – look at my parents,’ Slick interjected. ‘If they aren’t proof that we can all get along, then what is?’

‘Well, perhaps I don’t want to get along.’

‘Now, Lukas, that is insane,’ Christine said. ‘You can’t talk about humans and virn like this. The very idea that one species will somehow become rid of the other species is ridiculous. We are here because virn helped to relocate our parents and grandparents to this planet: we owe them that much.’

‘I owe them nothing. But they – they owe my family blood!’

‘Lukas – Lukas wait!’ Maria cried, as Lukas slammed his fists down on the table and pushed himself away, leaving before they could say anything further to call him back. The four remaining at the table were still, staring at the alleyway down which Lukas had disappeared.

‘Thank you, Chris,’ Slick said at last.

‘For what? I did nothing to convince him that he’s wrong. I don’t have my mum’s golden tongue.’

‘None of us could persuade him – but we’re glad that you agreed with us.’

‘Yes, we are,’ Maria agreed. ‘He showed no sign that he would change his mind.’

‘It’s … it’s …’ Orion said, as though he could not find the right word to adequately explain the situation. ‘Well, I suppose none of us can really tell how we would react.’ He cleared his throat loudly. ‘Let’s hope it’s only words. Let’s hope he’s only angry.’

‘I hope our hope is enough,’ Christine replied. There were murmurs of agreement from the others, before they fell into a silence once more.

~

Christine laid on her back on her fold-up bed, her hands shielding her eyes. Her head felt heavy and sore. There was a repetitive throbbing feeling in her temples, a genetic gift from her mother that became increasingly worse during stressful situations.

There was little she could think of that was more stressful than this.

Lukas had always been a good man. That was a broad thing to say about anybody, Christine knew, but Lukas had always been honest and righteous and fair. As far as she had been aware. He had never liked to see anyone belittled, and he had always stood up for the smaller guy – but only ever with words. Then, the news that his little brother had been scarred had come, and … something within him had changed. Christine supposed that, had she had a little brother or sister, she might have felt equally as protective over them.

She supposed that, even if it was an uncomfortable thought.

Her parents had taught her to think about her actions in all situations, and that included this one. When her father had died, her mother had not threatened to attack anyone. Maureen could have done it; she could have gone around shouting at everyone who had asked her how she was coming, but she had not. She had controlled her anger and direct her raw emotion towards the path of justice, which was what Christine had learned to do too.

She drifted in and out of an uncomfortable sleep for a while, until she was brought back to her senses by a sharp rapping on the door of the container. Christine pushed herself to her feet, her head still throbbing, though less violently, and the rapping became louder. Whoever was on the other side of the door started to shout her name, muffled by the thick metal. Christine reached the door, slid the latch, and heaved it open.

‘Chris!’ Maria forced her way inside as soon as the door was open enough for her to get one foot inside. ‘Shit, Chris, I’ve been calling you for ages!’

‘You have?’ Christine checked her wrist, but her communicator was missing. ‘I must’ve took my watch off when I got into bed … I kept drifting off, my head was pounding and I’m just exhausted …’

She spotted the watch on the bed, and strapped it back onto her wrist. There were nine missed calls from Maria.

‘Never mind that, you’ve got to come and do something, quick! Lukas has gone!’

‘Gone? What do you mean, gone? He already stormed off.’

‘No, no, worse than that. There’s no time – come on!’ Maria grabbed one of Christine’s wrists and pulled her out of the container in one powerful tug; Christine locked the container with her communicator and, once the initial shock of what Maria was trying to say had worn off, she shook her friend off so that they could move faster.

‘Where are we going?’ Christine asked between deep breaths.

‘Mes Lap. On the border with Pika. Now.

 

They were too late.

Christine and Maria saw it from afar. Even at a distance, it was horrible.

They heard it as though they were there, right in the middle of it all.

They thought they could feel the slice of the machete as Lukas swung it around and struck down the teenagers, and as it happened nothing else mattered.

Nothing except the screams and the bodies falling to the ground.

In the following days, they would discover how Lukas had discovered who the teenagers were, how he had tracked them down, and how much time he had spent wandering the borders of Valhalla causing trouble before he had caught up with his prey.

In the following days, there would be a landslide of information mingled with the torrent of emotional chaos left behind.

But right then, in those moments, there were only screams.

They reacted immediately, but they were too far away from Lukas to get to him. He was tackled to the ground by a group of humans who had been closer to the border. As he was pinned down, shouting his hatred of virn into the open air, Maria slowed to a halt. She grabbed hold of Christine’s jacked to stop her.

They stood there, both panting.

Neither of them spoke. There was nothing to say.

They turned and walked away with their heads hung.

~

When Maureen called her on the communicator, Christine was still in shock. She answered the call with a swipe of her arm.

‘Hey Chris, listen, I just want – what is it?’ Maureen asked, changing the direction of the conversation when she saw the look on her daughter’s face.

‘I – I …’ Christine said slowly, ‘I don’t know.’

‘She will not tell me,’ Rokesh said, shifting so that he was in front of the camera on Christine’s communicator. ‘I found her wandering around, I brought her back to your container, and I kept saying, I cannot help if I do not know the problem. Still, she will not tell me.’

Maureen nodded. ‘Chris,’ she said, ‘Chris honey, what is it? What’s upset you? Has something happened? What’s happened? Tell me, Chris.’

‘I – Lukas,’ she said.

‘What about Lukas?’

‘You – it just – I didn’t expect …’

‘Didn’t expect what?’ Maureen asked, after a short silence. Christine looked down at her feet, then back up at the communicator screen.

‘He hurt them, mum,’ she said. ‘I think maybe he killed some of them.’

‘What?’

‘What?’

Maureen and Rokesh reacted at the same time. Maureen lifted her communicator and moved it, backing herself into a small room, presumably so that she could not be overheard. Rokesh wrapped his arms around Christine, leaning over her chair and holding onto her hands so that she could not get away. His embrace was less soothing than she would have liked, but the fact that he was there was the important part.

‘After his brother got attacked. Lukas’ little brother. He – Lukas – he wanted revenge. I’m starting to hear things … from the others. They say he was following the virn … I don’t know.’

‘Oh no,’ Rokesh sighed, his head rest against Christine’s. It was not the best thing to say, but then Christine did not know what she wanted either of them to say.

‘Lukas wanted revenge?’ Maureen asked. The look on her face told Christine that she did not want to ask the next question on her mind, no matter how necessary it was t ask. ‘What did he do, Chris?’

‘He – told us,’ she said. ‘He told us, all of us, but we told him not to. Then he left, and we left. That was a week ago now … I didn’t hear anything about it, then Maria came over earlier and … we ran … and there he was … cutting them …’

‘Oh, Chris …’ Rokesh held onto her tighter, until he almost surrounded her. ‘How much did you see?’

‘It was … a way off. But enough.’

‘Chris,’ Maureen said, leaning closer to her screen, ‘listen to me carefully. I know how distressing this must be for you, but right now I’m supposed to be meeting Starg, the Keeper of Peace in Pika. He’ll invite me through into his office at any moment.’

‘Pika,’ Christine repeated, as if in a trance, ‘yes, Pika. Mes Lap.’

‘Mes Lap – what, that’s where this happened?’

‘Mes Lap, yes. Pika. The border’

‘Okay. In that case, it’s even more important that you listen to me. Starg will know about this attack soon enough, if he doesn’t already. I know you’ve been good friends with Lukas for a long time, but right now I need you to put all your feelings aside and tell me, from the beginning, exactly what happened.’

Christine sniffed. ‘Okay,’ she said.